"It's fun to coach because you can just say, ‘Next guy in,'" the veteran coach said with a glimmer in his eye. "So we do have some competition. The thing you always want is the best players to step out and be leaders and make the plays and those things, but it's a good group. They're working hard and I do feel a little bit more maturity with them just because they're a little bit older and we've got some juniors and seniors now and that really helps a lot."
But beyond likely members of the two-deep Doug Worthington, Todd Denlinger, Robert Rose and Lawrence Wilson (all seniors), Dexter Larimore, Cameron Heyward and Thaddeus Gibson (all juniors with at least a year as heavy contributors) and Nathan Williams, a sophomore who played appreciable minutes last season, there are enough players to form a full two-deep of their own at plenty of schools around the country.
Also hoping to earn playing time or at least provide depth while they await their turns are sophomore ends Solomon Thomas and Keith Wells as well as redshirt freshmen end Willie Mobley and defensive tackle Garrett Goebel.
Thomas was one of the stories of the spring as he received extra reps made available by the absences of Williams and Wells, both of whom did not take part in contact as they recovered from injuries. The junior from West Chester Lakota West backed up Gibson and was the star of the annual spring jersey scrimmage when he racked up 7.0 sacks.
Wells impressed the coaching staff enough to join Williams as one of two true freshman to play up front last season. He saw limited playing time but preferred that to redshirting.
"I'm definitely glad I got some game experience because this year I know what the speed is like, I know what the strength is like, so all in the offseason I was training myself based on my experiences of last year," Wells said. "I wanted to get faster. I wanted to get stronger and I definitely wanted to push myself to the next level to where I am not only competing but excelling against the competition."
He spent the offseason rehabbing from shoulder surgery and missed valuable reps while sitting out spring practice drills, but the Gainesville, Ga., native says he is back to full strength, and a chat with him revealed he is not lacking for confidence.
"I feel like once I'm at my point, the point where I want to be, there won't be any competition for me," he said. "There's definitely a lot of competition on the defensive line but at the same time once I get to where I want to be it won't matter who's on the depth chart. I feel like I'll excel over anybody."
While Wells saw the field, Goebel redshirted, an experience that was not altogether enjoyable.
"It was definitely tough standing on the sidelines just watching your teammates make plays and have fun, but I knew that the reason they were having success was that I played hard pushing them every week in practice on scout team," he said. "It's definitely going to be a lot better to be closer to playing."
Goebel did not make it through his first year in Columbus without making an impression on the staff. He was honored twice as the scout team defensive player of the week last season.
"The thing you always find out is when they play on the scout team and you hear in the locker room after practice all the offensive coaches saying, ‘Garrett Goebel, we can't block him,' or, ‘We're struggling with him,' " Heacock said. "It seemed like almost every day (offensive line coach Jim Bollman) would come up to me and say, ‘Garrett Goebel just gives us a heck of a time over there on the scout team. We have a hard time blocking him.' That's where it first stands out and you first get excited about him."
All in all, Heacock considers the depth and talent at his disposal enviable already, but he got excited again when asked about the four incoming freshmen.
"Wow, that's a good-looking group," Heacock said. "Right now we're just trying to get them lined up. You throw a lot at them because they come in when the upperclassmen do, but we're trying to see who can handle the mental part. That's the first thing. If you're going to play as a freshman, you've got to be able to handle the pressure and be able to get lined up."
The freshmen are a well-rounded group of well-regarded northeast Ohioans: Johnny Simon from Youngstown Cardinal Mooney, and Adam Bellamy from Aurora, at tackle, while Melvin Fellows of Garfield Heights and Jonathan Newsome of Cleveland Glenville are future potential impact players at end. The staff also hopes to groom Newsome in a linebacker/rush-end hybrid role Heacock said would resemble former Buckeye Bobby Carpenter's one-time role in scarlet and gray.
"We'll know a little bit more after the jersey scrimmage (Saturday), but they sure look like a great group to me," Heacock said. "I'm really excited about them."
Despite seeing his path to playing time blocked for now, Simon appreciates the influence of the veterans.
"It helps me a lot," he said. "The playbook is pretty complicated, a lot different from high school. Just having these seniors and juniors around to ask questions has been a big help to us."